Are Chemists Ready for Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR), once the province of supercomputer labs, is going mainstream. A few months ago, I strapped on a VR headset in Prof. Joel Franklin’s computer lab so that I could explore multi-hued computer-generated landscapes, some realistic, others purely fanciful. Once “inside,” and edging my way towards a rocky cliff, I had to remind my mind and my body that I was still standing on the flat floor of a college physics lab.

“Will chemists tilt their heads for virtual reality?” (C&E News, 4 April 2016) attempts to forecast the impact that increasingly inexpensive VR technology will have on chemistry teaching and research. The year-old article predicted $1 billion in sales of VR headsets for 2016, but I’m guessing that only a handful of these headsets found their way into chemistry labs. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to think about what the near future might hold.

John E. Stone, a senior research programmer in the Theoretical & Computational Biophysics Group at the University of Illinois told C&E News, “We’re getting the first practical, large-scale, mass-produced VR headsets. … What will happen is that we’ll go from an initial starting point where people use it just to look at things, and eventually they’ll start to use VR headsets to accomplish certain tasks.”

I think that’s exactly right. I wanted to try on a headset just to see for myself what the fuss was – what was everyone else was looking at? The next question for programmers and scientists is, “What is VR good for?”

C&E News also spoke to University of Maryland, computer scientist Amitabh Varshney, on this point, and came away with the thought that VR could “be a game changer for chemists because it brings together two complementary skill sets: spatial awareness and data analysis.” Or, as Varshney put it, “VR enables us to compute and visualize in a seamless way. Up until now, you could compute and visualize, but you were watching it as a detached observer. … Spatial relationships and proximity drive our understanding of what’s happening at the atomic level.”

I have been a strong advocate for visualization tools and visual understanding in chemistry instruction, but there are hurdles, besides cost and computer power, that VR must overcome before it plays a significant role in the classroom.

First, we have to break through the “fly solo” barrier. VR technology needs to be advanced to the point where a teacher and a student, or better yet, a teacher and multiple students, can interact with each other in the same VR world. My students and I need to stand in front of the same molecule together so that we can share our questions and experiences.

Second, the VR environment needs to be made more dynamic. When I work with molecular models I invariably find that the models (and modeling data) I started with are not the same ones I ended with. In the same way that a geologist doesn’t merely walk past rocks, but chips away at them to see what lies inside, my students and I will want to generate new data on the fly that were not part of the original VR simulation.

I have no doubt that these challenges, which mainly affect teaching, can be overcome, but there is some question in my mind as to whether researchers will find a happy marriage in the joining of VR and Big Data. A recent special issue of Science (The Cyberscientist, 7 July 2017) explored some of the newest developments in scientific applications of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, and it seems like many of these make use of machine learning tools that defy human comprehension. If that trend continues, it is hard to see at this point in time how inserting a human actor into the virtual picture will enhance the process of discovery.

All of which sends me back to Stone’s earlier conclusion that we will stop putting on VR headsets just to look at things, and instead use VR “to accomplish certain tasks.” Indeed. The financial barrier is sliding away, so once we begin to get an idea of what we need and want from VR, besides falling off computer-generated mountains and juggling virtual atoms, the technology will spread like wildfire.

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